Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Dutchman who turned Nazi Debris into a dialysis machine"

From this weekend's Financial Times obituary for Willem 'Pim' Kolff, written by Phil Davison ("Dutchman who turned Nazi debris into a dialysis machine"):

There were parts from a downed Luftwaffe fighter aircraft and from the radiator of an abandoned Ford car. There were orange juice tins, an enamel bathtub, a wooden drum and thin, artificial sausage skins.

The strange prototype would one day save the lives of millions. Kolff himself, an inventive genius who has died at the age of 97, would go on to become the driving force behind the first artificial heart as well as a man-made eye, an artificial ear and one of the first sophisticated prosthetic arms. He never patented any of his inventions because he believed they should benefit all mankind, not one individual.

His early dialysis machines failed and 16 patients died. The 17th, just weeks after the end of the second world war in 1945, was 67-year-old Sophia Schafstadt, a Nazi collaborator.

“Most people wanted to wring her neck,” said Kolff later. He himself had supported the Dutch resistance. He had helped save 800 of his countrymen from Nazi labour camps by hiding them – he concealed one 10-year-old Jewish boy in his own home – or by helping them fake the symptoms of disease. Yet he still used his machine to bring Schafstadt, the dying Nazi sympathiser, out of a coma and she lived for another seven years.

“The moral is that we have to treat patients when they need help even if we don’t like them,” he said.


Kolff recalled later that her first words as she came out of the coma were: “I’m going to divorce my husband.” Her husband had opposed the Nazis – and she did divorce him.

The article also notes that Kolff led the team at the University of Utah that implanted the first artificial heart in a human (Barney Clark): Robert Jarvik, after whom that artificial heart was named, was one of Kolff's students. Jarvik, of course, is also the former star of Pfizer's Lipitor commercials.

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